I watched Black Swan last night. If you haven’t seen it, in one scene, an old man makes very obscene and sexually explicit and aggressive motions and faces at Natalie Portman’s character while they ride what appears to be an empty subway car at night. She looks alarmed and very uncomfortable. He is enjoying her discomfort. After all, wasn’t that his intent? To humiliate her? To shame her for being female? To bully and exert power over her since she is a young, lone woman on the subway at night?
Alright, nothing new there. Street harassment happens all the time, including on the subway. I would have cheered if she’d yelled at him, reported him, or shamed him in some way, but she didn’t and I so just felt for her. Her reaction is very typical (I know it’s one I’ve had many times) and not blameworthy. She was just riding the subway. She shouldn’t have to make it her vendetta to shame all harassers she encounters if she doesn’t want to.
What shocked me wasn’t the scene, but the number of people in the audience who laughed very loudly during the scene, like it was a funny joke.
Why is a woman’s obvious discomfort and humiliation funny?
(Side note, similarly, why are prison rape jokes still considered funny? They aren’t. It’s RAPE. I’m disappointed every time I see that “joke” in movies and tv shows, like when I recently re-watched Arrested Development).
It really upset me to hear the laughter. I know street harassment is often portrayed as a joke (when it’s addressed at all), especially when it’s an “ugly” or “poor” man harassing a “beautiful” or “wealthy” woman (or in this case, an old man harassing a young one), but I haven’t had to actually witness people treating the issue in such a blatant hahaha way. I didn’t like it.
And I know there are times when street harassment can be funny – like some of the ridiculous things harassers say and the contexts when they say it or when a woman is able to stand up to them in a clever and empowering way – but usually it is not. It’s a pretty serious issue that prevents women from having the same access to public spaces as men and that often makes them feel less comfortable in public spaces. It’s just rarely treated that way in the media.
If you’ve seen the movie, what did you think? Did you laugh? Did others in the theater laugh? Is there some humor there that I’m just not seeing?